Tyrell Returns Feeling Faster, More Independent After Setbacks

Forget the airy questions about mirroring NHL superstars, or making casual comparisons - Norfolk Admirals forward Dana Tyrell follows his own compass.

However, the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect questioned himself and his future after a right knee injury sidelined him for six months last year.

Tyrell was on a fast track to success, earning a spot on Team Canada while leading the Prince George Cougars squad in scoring, piling up 19 goals and 21 assists in 30 games.

Then, his world would drastically change in the ensuing months.

Known for his hard-hitting style, Tyrell paid the price before he had the chance to help Team Canada win the World Juniors gold in Ottawa in 2008.

During a tune-up exhibition match against Sweden Dec. 2008, Tyrell raced towards a loose puck from the blueline at the same velocity of Sweden’s defenseman (and now a member of the Lightning) Victor Hedman.

A crash against the boards followed, and Tyrell left the match with a completely torn ACL and partially torn MCL requiring surgery. Although he has a World Junior gold encased in a frame, watching Team Canada from the rafters never crossed his mind.

“That was disappointing not joining my teammates,” Tyrell said. “I grew up watching Team Canada, and to be there and not to play - was very hard for me. But I had to move on.”

The following months proved to be tough for Tyrell, who started his junior career after being drafted in the 2004 WHL Bantam Draft.

“It was tough for me mentally,” Tyrell said via phone from Norfolk. “For a couple months, I just had to find another way to occupy myself, it was a real obstacle. Team Canada set me up with a trainer to help me get stronger, and to stay focused on my recovery. In the beginning the skating was hard, but I had good people around me to keep me sharp and encouraged. I’m thankful for that.”

Speed and agility - ingredients Tyrell revisited after his forced hiatus.

"He has the acceleration and the ability to get to the puck in tight areas,” Admirals head coach Jim Johnson said before he was promoted to the Lightning as assistant coach Wednesday. “He’s not afraid to get into high traffic areas and take hits. Dana is gaining confidence, and is improving every game. The other night he played 17 ½ minutes, and is doing well in his development. He does need to work on shooting more accurately. But with Dana, he never stops working hard and has a tremendous work ethic.”

Tyrell chased away old ghosts, to his amazement.

“I was worried that I wouldn’t get my speed back after being out for so long. But I got my speed back and I think I’m even faster,” said the 2007 second-round draft pick.

Tyrell, 20, is working on the first two lines, anchored by veteran players Ryan Craig and Adam Hall. But despite veteran leadership, the AHL has been trying.

“It’s been tougher playing in the AHL than it was in juniors. I’m adapting to the level of talent and to the speed of the league. I just need to keep doing what I am doing and work even harder to get to the NHL,” he said. “I’m getting time on the penalty kill and seeing a good amount of ice time, too. I hope to prove that I can help this team win.”

Tyrell showed he can be a two-way player, something he relishes. He proved he could be the set-up man and score goals in his junior career. Tyrell tallied 121 points with Prince George during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 campaigns, respectively.

On the contrary, the goals were elusive during the first half of the season with the Admirals. But Tyrell found his groove last month, scoring his first goals of the season, helping Norfolk turn the escalating ebb into a fruitful new beginning under the direction of Johnson, who replaced ousted coach Darren Rumble.

Norfolk was 17-23-2 and improved to a 13-2-2 record during Johnson’s 17 games behind the bench. The team went from scoring 2.50 goals a game, to 3.00, and is seventh overall in the AHL’s East Division. Tyrell had a huge stake in the recent upswing, tallying one goal and seven points in the last five games, with thrice having multi-point nights. He has collected 18 assists in 53 games as of Feb. 22.

It’s Tyrell’s moment, and his stock is rising.

“Oh, yeah, I'd love to score more,” Tyrell laughed. “I’m working to improve my shot, my accuracy, and getting a quicker release. That’s who I am, a two-way player. It felt great to start getting some goals. I know I can bring that kind of energy to the Lightning."

Johnson noticed a change as well during January that gave both the Admirals and Tyrell a boost, although he’s not surprised.

“Dana is very mature for his age and has a great work ethic,” said Johnson, who worked as the Lightning’s development coach in 2008-2009. “I saw his confidence rise during the road trip and he’s scoring more because of it. He’s getting the time and is taking advantage of it, confidence breeds confidence.”

Is motivation and work ethic enough to propel Tyrell to the NHL?

“I think so,” Johnson said. “This is what is going to separate him from others. You need to have a good work ethic to play at that level. I am confident he will be able to get there and remain in the league. If he continues developing the way he has, Dana to going to succeed.”

Tyrell hopes he can go beyond the checking role, as he looks ahead.

“I know I can fit in well with their team in the checking role and scoring, too,” he said. “Eventually, I see myself playing on the top two lines there. I know Tampa sees me in a checking role, that’s OK."

This season, Tyrell has come full-circle. He seems more independent - directing his own destiny on the ice.

And he doesn't have time for comparisons, or walking in another athlete's shadows.

"… I haven’t answered that one in a while,” he paused. “There’s no one I would compare myself to. I have my own style. That’s pretty much who I am, I guess - just me.”